Partnerships to Drive Healthy Eating and Active Lifestyles in Malaysia

How can various stakeholders work together to implement and endorse a collaborative action plan, such as nutrition education programmes, to encourage a healthy lifestyle among children? Achieving the common goal of encouraging healthy food choices and increasing physical activity requires multi-stakeholder discussion and collaboration.


Speaking with the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN), Dr Feisul Idzwan Mustapha, public health physician with the Ministry of Health, Malaysia, shared about government plans to encourage healthy lifestyles in Malaysia, and the importance of partnership in effecting behaviour change among consumers.


Dr Feisul was a speaker and panellist at the “Partnerships to Promote Healthy Eating and Active Lifestyle in Asia” event, focused on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #17, and held by ARoFIIN in conjunction with the Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development 2017.


FIA: What are the government’s efforts in promoting a healthy lifestyle in Malaysia?


FIM: Since the 1990s, the Malaysian government has been conducting population-based surveys – even then, we noticed the rising trend of obesity and overweight among both the youth and adult populations. Although we have since instituted various media campaigns and health education programmes to address obesity and other non-communicable disease (NCD) risk factors, we have noticed the trends continuing to increase over the years.


Most recently, we developed several national strategic plans – I’d like to highlight the National Plan of Action for Nutrition of Malaysia 2016-2025, which is in its third reiteration and thus called the NPANM III, as well as the National Strategic Plan for Non-Communicable Diseases, or NSP-NCD 2016-2025.


The NPANM III covers the full range of the life course – ranging from pregnancy, all the way to old age. Most activities under this plan focus on raising awareness and knowledge, be it counselling, or health and nutrition education. However, it’s not just about incorporating this education into the school curriculum, but also looking at the school environment, such as school meal programmes and food sold in the canteens, as well as the marketing of unhealthy food to children around the school perimeters.


FIA: How can policymakers work with stakeholders, including industry players, to encourage healthy eating behaviour?


FIM: Within the obesity space, the Malaysian government promotes public-private partnership (PPP). On the other hand, we can argue that the F&B industry is part of the problem concerning obesity, particularly among children. I do not believe that there’s “dangerous food” – it’s all about quality and nutritional value of food, and healthy eating behaviour. We're talking about the marketing of food and beverages to children, and we are looking at how we can address and regulate that space. Saying that, I'm of the opinion that if you are part of the problem, then you should be part of the solution as well. Furthermore, with the advent of technology, I think we need to explore other innovative ways to address the issue of obesity, because it is essentially about addressing behaviours.


FIA: How does a platform like ARoFIIN help to enhance multi-stakeholder collaboration?


FIM: With ARoFIIN, it is a transparent process of bringing together various stakeholders from across sectors, as well as networking and experience-sharing among countries – learning from others’ mistakes, so that you don't repeat the same ones. This facilitation of dialogues and collaborations is a key area in which ARoFIIN plays an important part – the bridging of certain trust gaps between government and industry.


They say that if you want to move fast, you can do it alone; but if you want to go far, you need a whole team behind you. In tackling NCDs and obesity, we cannot rely on the efforts of the Ministry of Health alone; we need everyone – other government agencies, the private sector, academia, and even the individuals in community – to take responsibility for the different aspects of not only individual behaviour, but also the environment that one lives in. We need to be motivated to challenge and change the norms, in working toward encouraging healthier lifestyles.

Efforts to change behaviour must go beyond awareness-raising and knowledge-sharing, as our behaviours are strongly influenced by our living environments. If the environment does not support healthy behaviour, it will become almost impossible to adopt. A school environment, for example, is relatively easy to regulate. However, a child’s home environment also has significant impacts on his or her dietary and physical activity behaviour. While we have less control over environments such as those of the home, it is therefore important to assess how we can regulate availability and accessibility of food, especially those high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), in the school setting.

Published on 05 Mar 2018